The war that raged on in Zamboanga last month surprised me. A group of us were in the middle of meeting schoolteachers, farmers, and marines. Hope was a contagious disease we all seemed to inflict upon each other. When the year started, we were merely beginning a campaign to build schools where they were needed the most. I didn’t even know what role I would play in the completion of this task. My head was in a different place then. It was trying to wrap itself around the way our government operated–outside the classroom, beyond the textbooks. I dreamed then (as I still do now) of a responsive government and a leadership driven by passion and purpose. I saw the president’s potential to make decisions no one in our history could. It excited me, but no more than my parent’s who loved telling others where I worked and what I did for a living.
When the Zamboanga siege erupted, I was still in a daze. A whole night spent at sea, sailing with Tausugs and Christians alike, among them rebels and victims, left nary a scent of trouble. The water was so calm, the wind quiet. I fell asleep as soon as I laid my head down on my knapsack. That night I slept dreamless.
We had done so much in one weekend. The goal was to retrieve footage to be used in a short documentary and while we planned meticulously to get this done, we weren’t prepared to have so much downtime.
By Sunday morning I was readying for church. It bothered me that I didn’t prepare a decent dress. I thought of my grandparents, shaking their heads, wondering where all the memories of Sundays past had gone. But I knew, as soon as we boarded the jeeps with soldiers in civilian attire, that Lolo would understand. These were different circumstances. I was Catholic going to church in a predominantly Muslim area that was constantly threatened by armed rebels. Surely I would be forgiven for packing so austerely.
At mass I felt a tremendous calm. I called it happiness afterwards and sent a message to my mother asking if I could stay another week in time for the Activation Day of the battalion hosting us. She ignored me, of course. Bless her. Two hours past noon, there was coffee and a whole array of native delicacies hastily being unwrapped and offered to me by the spoonfuls. The farmers and some community leaders–including bright young people–all came together to talk about various projects and the network they wished to form. I kept nodding as I listened, trying to keep myself from speaking at all except for when I was told to address them. What could I say apart from: “Wow, you guys are really making it work from the ground up, aren’t you?”
We left Jolo that evening. I carried a paper bag filled with newly baked empanadas and an ice bag packed with homemade sauce. I could taste my return ticket with every bite even in the darkness, I could tell the streets of the town apart.
Arriving in Zamboanga, we heard gunshots but thought little of them because the route we passed showed a contained commotion. Nothing serious up until we boarded the plane and were told that the MNLF had a hand in this.
Returning to Manila left me baffled and speechless. The problem with traveling to places where trees are allowed to grow until they’re ancient and where distances are measured relative to the sea is that you never really get to reintegrate yourself to the rhythmless city. Everything here is noise and if you aren’t making any to complement it, your voice is taken away.
In the capital, I can almost touch every person who makes decisions. The city is that small. Everyone is related to one another making complicity in communal crimes greater than if people just acted alone. This whole issue of Pork Barrel shook the nation and roused it from its stupor. The extent to which we were duped by politicians and citizens alike still haunts me.
I cannot remember what it feels like to not know about how deep our sins are.
Perhaps this is why the photo of the ants resonates so much? I am always this small and insignificant and no matter how strong my conviction and the clarity in my voice, I’m still bound to be this way–tiny and inconsequential.
Tonight I’m comforted by that more than I am bothered because maybe, being small is grace too.